Next Victim by Michael Prescott - Read Online
Next Victim
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Summary

Tess McCallum is a blonde, gray‑eyed, single, and totally dedicated FBI agent whose work and personal life have both been stuck in neutral since the traumatic night she came home to find her fellow FBI agent and secret lover ritually murdered by the slippery sex killer she had been pursuing. Her target, Mobius, is a crafty, complex, and completely insane serial killer. His unique scariness lies in his ordinariness; he is an Everyman who could be just about anyone . . . or anywhere. Now, two unnervingly inactive years later, Tess gets a summons from her former boss, Assistant Director Gerald Andrus, bringing her to L.A. to investigate a suspect who seems frighteningly similar to Mobius. He is back, with a new identity and, as a result of his latest opportunistic killing, a new weapon of mass destruction (a canister of VX nerve agent), as well as a nasty plan to kill thousands all at once. Tess must unravel the puzzle and figure out the secret of Mobius before he kills her, along with a big chunk of Los Angeles. The suspense starts early and does not quit. 
Published: Open Road Media an imprint of Open Road Integrated Media on
ISBN: 9781480498167
List price: $9.99
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Next Victim - Michael Prescott

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Page 1 of 1

For my parents

For they have sown the wind,

and they shall reap the whirlwind.

—Hosea 8:7

PROLOGUE: 1968

The standoff was in its fourth hour.

Mason Howard, sheriff of Valencia County, stood under the noonday sun in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s Motor Inn fifty miles west of Albuquerque. Not far away, traffic rushed past on Route 66—truckers on long hauls, locals running errands, families taking road trips. And maybe, every once in a while, somebody in flight from the law.

Somebody like the woman whose Buick Grand Sport was parked outside room 24 of the HoJo, the woman who had locked and barricaded herself in her room and was holding a gun.

Howard lifted the bullhorn in his left hand—he was keeping his right hand free in case he had to draw his sidearm in a hurry—and tried again to get through to her.

Mrs. Beckett. His amplified voice rippled across the hot macadam. There’s no need for anyone to get hurt, ma’am. We can settle things nice and reasonable if you’ll just come on out here.

The window of room 24 was open, although the drapes were drawn. Music played inside the room—the same damn song, over and over.

Above the music rose a high, quavering reply: "Leave me alone!"

Howard lowered the megaphone. He glanced at Deputy Trilling, standing beside him against the open door of a department cruiser. Never having been in a shoot-out, Trilling seemed to believe that the door would offer cover if the lady opened fire. He was wrong. Bullets could cut through a car door as easy as a knife through cheese.

Howard decided not to disabuse him of the notion. All he said was, She’s losing it.

Lloyd Trilling made a snorting sound, his nearest approach to laughter. I’d say she lost it a long time ago. ’Round the time she amscrayed with the kid and went on the lam.

The kid. Right there was the nub of the problem. If Melinda Beckett had been alone in the motel room, Howard would have been content to wait her out indefinitely.

But there was the kid, Melinda’s eight-year-old boy, trapped with his suicidal mom. Yesterday she’d abducted the boy from her estranged hubby, a Mr. Harrison Beckett of Casper, Wyoming, and driven six hundred miles while an APB was put out across all the western states.

At seven-thirty this morning Deputy Trilling had spotted the gold Grand Sport convertible with the flashy red stripe in the HoJo’s parking lot. After confirming the license number, he’d radioed for backup. Howard had hoped to take the woman by surprise when she checked out, but one of the arriving deputies had made the mistake of driving past the window. Melinda had seen the squad car and figured out what was going on.

Now she was holed up inside with a gun and a kid and a bunch of psychotic thoughts racing through her head. And she was playing that stupid record again and again.

What the hell is that song, anyway? he muttered.

The one she’s hooked on? Trilling was a pop music buff. It’s the Surfaris, Mason. God, weren’t you ever young?

If I was, I don’t recall it now. What or who are the Safaris?

"Surfaris, Trilling corrected. Rock ’n’ roll band out of California. Like the Beach Boys. You heard of them, haven’t you?"

I may have. You still didn’t tell me the name of the song.

‘Wipe Out.’ That’s what they call it.

Great. ‘Wipe Out.’ That sounds mighty encouraging.

There was a pause, and then Trilling asked, So what the hell we gonna do, Mason? He kept his voice low so the other deputies positioned around the parking lot, eight in all, couldn’t hear him address the sheriff by his first name. It was an informality Howard permitted no one else while on duty. He and Lloyd went back a ways, and besides, Lloyd had married Howard’s sister.

We keep talking, Howard said stolidly.

I don’t know. She’s losing it, like you said. She might just go ahead and pop that little munchkin of hers.

She loves the boy. That’s why she snatched him.

Love makes a woman do crazy things.

Howard couldn’t argue with that. He’d been through two wives and was working on his third, and as far as he was concerned, all three had been as nutty as a pecan pie when love got hold of them.

If she gets the idea that we’re gonna take the kid away from her, Trilling went on, she could shoot him just out of plain spite.

Well, what do you propose we do, Lloyd? Howard meant the question to be rhetorical or sarcastic or whatever the word was, but Trilling was ready with an answer.

I say we go in through that open window.

There’s a lady on the other side of that window with a firearm that may be loaded.

Here’s how I see it. You talk on the bullhorn, right? She has to get near the window in order to shout back and be heard over that song. Me and Thompson and Donnigan, we’re waiting, crouched down, right outside. When she yells to you, we’ll know pretty much exactly where she is. We go in through the drapes, and I tackle her just like Dick Butkus bringing down Bart Starr.

That’s great, Lloyd. Then while you’re rolling around on the floor with her, she snaps off a round and plugs you in the chest.

Hell, she’s a woman. I’ll pin her to the mat before she can do a damn thing.

Forget it. I’m not making Barbara a widow.

"We got to do something."

"We are doing something. We’re keeping her contained. We’re wearing her down."

You might wanna think twice about that, Sheriff.

The voice belonged to Deputy Arnold, who was supposed to be minding the station house and was instead creeping up behind Howard’s cruiser.

Howard reminded the deputy that he had left his post, in a tone that strongly suggested he’d better have a good reason.

He did. "Two pieces of news for you, and neither one of ’em ought to go out over the squawk box. First off, Darnell over at the Trib has got wind of this and he’s coming over. And if Darnell’s in on it, you know Lucy can’t be far behind."

Damn. Lucy Pigeon was a reporter for Albuquerque radio station KKOB, and she and Tom Darnell of the Albuquerque Tribune were engaged to be married. So we’ll have two reporters on the scene, one of ’em broadcasting live.

It gets worse.

How can it?

The husband of Ma Barker in there—Arnold jerked a thumb at the motel—called me from the Texaco in Alcomita. He’s coming to the station house. Been on the road ever since the cops in Casper told him we’d located his wife and kid.

Howard shook his head. This was a pickle. The press, a radio reporter—and Harrison Beckett, the hostage’s dad. The town of Alcomita was only a few miles from the sheriff’s station in Grants. Mr. Beckett would be there in no time. And once Lucy began airing the story, every radio and TV station from here to Flagstaff would be sending a crew. Things would get ugly in a hurry.

See, Mason? Trilling blurted. We got to make our move.

Don’t call me Mason, Deputy, Howard snapped for Arnold’s benefit.

Sorry, sir. But we can’t wait her out. It’ll be a circus soon. We’ll lose control of the situation.

We never had control, Howard wanted to say. It was just like that mess they had going over there in Vietnam. There was the illusion of control, of a strategy, but all the time circumstances were conspiring to shoot the generals’ careful plans all to shit.

He thought for a minute as a seam of sweat stitched down his cheek.

Okay, he said. We’ll do it your way, Deputy Trilling. Get Thompson and Donnigan together and fill ’em in.

Trilling scooted away to find the other two.

And you, Deputy Arnold—get back to the station. When Mr. Beckett shows up, stall him. Keep him the hell away from here. And if you need to reach me again, use the damn radio. I don’t care who picks up the signal.

Then Arnold was gone, and Howard was alone by the side of his car. He adjusted his hat, licked his fingers so he’d have some traction if he had to draw his gun, and hoped he had made the right decision. In the distance that damn song kept playing. Wipe Out—he hoped it wasn’t an omen.

Two minutes later he saw Trilling, Thompson, and Donnigan approach the motel door, hugging the wall. Their revolvers were out, sunlight glinting off the barrels. Thompson and Donnigan looked wary. Trilling seemed to be enjoying himself. He was a hot dog, that one. Get himself killed someday.

Howard waited until the three were in position by the window. Then he switched on the megaphone.

Mrs. Beckett? We can wait all afternoon if you like, but I don’t see how that’ll accomplish much. You and your boy must be getting hungry. How about you open up and we get you both some breakfast?

Only music from the room. Trilling glanced at Howard, who tried a second time to elicit a response.

Even if you’re not hungry, ma’am, I’ll bet your boy is. They got a good restaurant here at HoJo’s. What do you say I have them fry up some eggs and nice crispy bacon?

Still nothing but the song.

Mrs. Beckett?

Sunlight reflected off the megaphone onto Howard’s face. The heat and glare were something awful.

Come on, Mrs. Beckett, I’m making a very reasonable offer, don’t you think? He tried a little joke. It’s not every day you get a free breakfast.

All she had to do was curse him out, tell him to go to hell, say anything that would allow the three deputies to establish her position before they climbed through the window. But she wasn’t talking.

Howard figured he’d give it one more try. If it didn’t work, he’d call off the forced entry and go back to his original plan, and if Lucy Pigeon made it a circus, so be it.

I know what you’re going through, Mrs. Beckett. I know how hard it can be. He thought this approach just might reach her. Nothing’s fair in this world, but—

A sound cut him off. A faraway sound, not loud but easily recognizable. To an unpracticed ear it might have been the snap of a clothesline on a windy day or the smack of a screen door slapping shut, but Howard knew it was a gunshot, and it had come from room 24.

Mrs. Beckett—

A second crack of sound.

The drapes in the open window rustled in a breath of wind.

Trilling was looking at him. Howard shouted, Go in! and broke into a run, covering yards of hot macadam, while the deputies arrayed around the parking lot scrambled to follow.

By the time he reached the window, Trilling and the other two were already inside. The drapes had been thrust apart, and even before climbing into the room, Howard could see the sprawled shape of a woman’s body on the carpet, a dark pool like an oil stain spreading around her head.

She was finished. Over the years Howard had seen enough of death to know it at a glance.

But there had been two shots, damn it.

Where the hell’s the boy? Howard yelled over the blare from a portable phonograph as he swung both legs over the window frame.

In here.

Trilling’s voice. Low and shaky.

Howard muscled Thompson and Donnigan out of his way and entered the bathroom. Deputy Trilling stood over the tub. Howard moved closer and saw soapy water sloshing against the porcelain sides, water dyed pink with slow spirals of blood.

The boy lay faceup in the bath, nude, a toy submarine floating near him.

God damn, Howard said.

Like I told you. Trilling barely whispered the words. Just out of plain spite.

Howard marshaled his professionalism. Get the boy out of there. Check for a pulse. Try mouth-to-mouth and chest compression.

It was hopeless, but procedures had to be followed. Howard left Trilling with his arms in the bloody water and returned to the main room. Donnigan was nearest the phone.

Call for an ambulance, Howard ordered.

Donnigan blinked. Is the boy…?

Just do it.

He looked at the record player, resting near the window. One of the deputies, scrambling in, must have jostled the machine and scratched the disk. The stylus was stuck in one groove, repeating the same sound over and over—someone’s giggly falsetto saying, Wipe out…!

His radio crackled with Deputy Arnold’s voice. Sheriff?

Wipe out…!

Howard thumbed the transmit button. I copy, over.

He’s here, sir. Mr. Beckett is here.

Wipe out…!

Turn off that fucking thing, Howard said to the nearest deputy.

A screech as the stylus was yanked across the platter.

Sheriff? Arnold again. You read me?

I read you, Deputy.

What should I tell him, sir? What do I tell Mr. Beckett about his wife and boy?

Mason Howard stared out the window and wished he knew the answer to that.

PART ONE

1

She was running hard down an alley with her Sig Sauer 9mm in her hand, her shout echoing off the high brick walls.

Stop, FBI!

The suspect did not stop or even turn to look at her. His shoes slapped the asphalt. He was pulling away, blending into the nocturnal shadows. Soon he would be only another shadow himself.

She put on some speed. There was no point in shouting again. She would only waste her breath.

Yards ahead the alley opened on a street streaming with traffic. She saw the suspect as a silhouette, his figure limned by rushing headlights.

If he reached the street and made a dash through the traffic, he would lose her.

But she wouldn’t let that happen.

With a rush of adrenaline she lengthened her strides, closing the gap until finally she reached out with her left hand and grabbed his shirt collar.

She gave it a hard yank and jerked him off balance like a dog surprised by a sudden tug on its chain—and like a dog, he snarled as he whipped around, and she saw a flash of teeth.

Not teeth. Steel.

A knife.

The blade drove at her. She spun clear and almost fired at him, but she was afraid that a shot at point-blank range would kill him, and she didn’t want him dead.

Instead she chopped his wrist with the side of her hand, splaying his fingers. The knife fell, and before he could retrieve it, she’d taken a step back and fixed him in the pistol’s sights.

Don’t move, you are under arrest.

She still thought he might try something, and she was ready to try for a nonlethal shot, in violation of her academy training, in which the advisability of always taking the kill shot had been emphasized.

But he surprised her by raising his hands in submission. Then she heard footsteps behind her, approaching at a run. She didn’t want to take her eyes off the suspect, and especially the suspect’s hands, the two danger points, so without looking back she called out, Who’s coming?

LAPD, a male voice answered.

Must be the uniformed cop she’d seen on Melrose. It didn’t escape her notice that it was a patrol officer, not the two special agents sharing surveillance duty with her in the van, who’d come to her aid.

I’m FBI, she said, still watching the suspect. He remained in silhouette. A lanky figure, medium tall, with close-cropped hair and wiry arms. She could not judge his age or ethnicity. If he was a white male around forty years old, she would be very happy.

The patrolman trotted up beside her and gave his name—Payton.

Tess McCallum, she said.

What the hell happened? I saw you jump out of a parked minivan and take off after this guy.

He was already running. That’s why I chased him.

Come again?

He was about to go into Aspen. Aspen was a club on Melrose Avenue, near the entrance to the alley. Then he caught sight of you and turned away. As soon as you weren’t looking, he broke into a run.

Scared of cops, is he? Now why would that be?

Payton snapped on his flashlight to get a look at the suspect, and Tess was instantly disappointed.

He was a white male. That much was good. But he wasn’t any older than twenty-five.

He was not the man she’d hoped for.

I don’t know him, Payton said. He put up any resistance?

Tried to cut me. She bobbed her head at the knife on the asphalt. The flashlight beam swung over to it, revealing it as a cheap switchblade.

That wasn’t so smart, asshole. Up against the trash bin. Come on, move it.

Payton handcuffed the suspect, then made him spread his legs as he patted him down. In the pocket of the young man’s pants he found a bag of white powder.

Coke, the patrolman said. He was probably going into the bar to make a sale. Saw a uniform and freaked.

Tess had put her gun back into the special compartment in her purse now that Payton was in command of the situation. Well, it’s your bust. Local crime.

Unless you want to make it assault on a federal officer, Payton said, obviously hoping for a bigger collar.

I’ll let it ride. The knife probably just slipped a little in my direction. Isn’t that right, sir?

The suspect, who hadn’t said one word so far, looked at her and muttered, Suck me off, bitch.

Payton told him that was no way to address a lady. Tess just laughed.

LA’s one hell of a town, isn’t it? Payton said wearily.

I wouldn’t know. I’m just visiting.

Lucky you.

You didn’t really think it was him, did you?

Tess looked at Special Agent Collins as she climbed back into the van. You never know, she answered. He was the right height, right build, and he ran from a cop. Thanks for backing me up, by the way.

Collins shrugged. Diaz, wearing headphones as he listened to the sounds in the bar, was more conciliatory. We had to keep an eye on Barber. Julie Barber was the agent stationed inside Aspen, whose job was to fend off come-ons from patrons who didn’t match the profile, while encouraging anyone who looked like a possible suspect.

Anything happen inside? Tess asked.

Not a thing, Collins said. Like last night, and the night before that, and the night—

Point taken. Tess refused to be ruffled. We’re not the only ones pulling this detail. Maybe one of the other squads will get lucky.

Maybe pigs will fly. Face it, this son of a bitch is too smart to return to this neighborhood. He’ll show up someplace else next time. Santa Barbara, San Diego. Anywhere but here.

Tess was inclined to agree. Trouble was, they couldn’t watch every bar on the southern California coast. They had to make a stand somewhere.

She was about to point this out when her purse began to chirp. Her cell phone was ringing.

She answered it. McCallum.

You’d better get over to the field office, said a voice she recognized as belonging to Peter Larkin.

She disliked Larkin. And she didn’t intend to let him order her around. I’m working surveillance, remember?

I remember. Let Collins and Diaz handle it. You got your own vehicle there?

Yes, but—

Stop wasting time, Agent McCallum. Just haul ass over here.

What’s going on, Peter? she asked in a more cautious voice.

Nothing much. It’s just that we may have got him, that’s all. I really hope you can find time to join us.

He clicked off, and she was left staring at the silent phone in her hand.

2

We may have got him.

The words chased Tess McCallum like ghosts as she guided the bureau sedan west on Wilshire Boulevard, past the shops and palm trees of Beverly Hills. The sunset had faded out hours ago, and somewhere above the smog, the stars were shining.

She powered through an intersection as the stoplight cycled from yellow to red, ignoring a horn that blared at her. She would not be stopped by traffic lights.

She had to see him. Had to look at his face.

Could they really have caught him—finally, after two years? There was no way to be sure. But she wouldn’t have been pulled away from the undercover detail on Melrose if all they had was another possible, like that one last week, the salesman who had turned out to be only a run-of-the-mill adulterer.

The streets were busy, as always, and she had to swing from lane to lane, passing slower cars. The bureau car—or bucar in the ridiculous terminology of the FBI—was a blue Crown Victoria, only two years old, with good acceleration and smooth handling. It invited her to take risks. She only hoped a cop didn’t pull her over. The FBI badge in her wallet would probably save her from a ticket, but a traffic stop would slow her down.

She reached the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica. Not far from Westwood now. The dashboard clock read 9:58.

She wondered if Andrus had been called. If he had been, then they must be really sure. It was March 29—Friday on Easter weekend—and although she didn’t think of Andrus as particularly religious, she knew they wouldn’t disturb an assistant director on Good Friday without cause.

On impulse she removed her cell phone from her purse and speed-dialed the field office’s switchboard, then asked for Larkin. This is McCallum again, she said when Larkin came on. I’m five, ten minutes out. What’s going on?

Nothing that can’t wait till you get here. As always, Larkin treated her with supercilious disrespect. It wasn’t possible to hear a man smirk over the phone, but Tess could swear she heard it anyway.

Just give me the rundown, she said.

He sighed, perturbed at this misuse of his time. The guy’s name, address, DL, and SSN all check out. No priors. They haven’t read him his rights yet. It was legal to obtain preliminary information on a suspect without a Miranda warning. Right now we’ve got him cooling his heels.

This was standard procedure. Some suspects lost their nerve after as little as ten minutes alone in the bare institutional setting of the interrogation room. Then the Stockholm syndrome would kick in, and they would cooperate with their interrogators, sometimes even confess. The downside was that often these confessions were false.

Are Gaines and Michaelson there? she asked. Gaines was a profiler working the case. Michaelson was the squad supervisor, experienced at interrogation.

Gaines just arrived. We’re expecting Michaelson any second.

Who made the bust?

Tyler, Hart, and DiFranco. They’re in the surveillance room. Michaelson and Gaines may want Tyler in on the questioning at some point.

And me? Do they want me in?

I don’t think that’s such a good idea.

She hadn’t asked for his opinion. We’ll talk about it. How about Andrus?

He’s here.

So they had called him. I guess he looks good for it, this guy? she said, holding her voice steady.

It’s still preliminary.

Obviously Larkin would tell her only the bare minimum. She ought to be angry, but all she felt was nervous tension. Try to hold off the interview till I get there.

Michaelson’s the case agent. He’s the one in charge.

Tess knew that. Just take your time briefing him, okay? She clicked off without waiting for an answer and dumped the phone back into her handbag.

She hated talking to Larkin. Hated talking to any of them, really, except Andrus. The others treated her with a mixture of pity and scorn. Pity for what had happened in Denver. Scorn because they liked to think they would have handled it better. They were men, after all. They didn’t let things get to them. But she was a woman—and women, well, they got emotional about these things.

Of course, they didn’t know the whole story. Only Andrus knew, and she had prevailed on him not to share it with the others. It was irrelevant to the case. It was her private life. She had given enough of her life to the bureau—more than enough. There were some things she meant to keep to herself.

She was in Westwood now, coursing down the wide corridor between rows of high-rise apartment buildings. Ahead, on her right, was Westwood Village, a cluster of movie theaters and T-shirt shops crowded with UCLA students.

Her destination lay to her left, at the southwest corner of Wilshire and Veteran—the twenty-story Federal Building that housed the Los Angeles field office of the FBI.

On most homicide investigations, local law enforcement authorities had jurisdiction and took the lead, and the bureau was brought in, if at all, only to provide consultation and analysis. But not this one. This was a federal case, and had been ever since the night of February 12, two years ago.

February 12.

The key in the lock. The key, turning. The key…

But she couldn’t think about that now.

She pulled into the large, open parking lot adjacent to the building. Ordinarily it would be almost empty at night, but on weekends the lot was used by visitors to the Village. Even so, she found an available slot after less than a minute of searching.

She killed the Crown Victoria’s engine and hurried inside, where she stabbed the elevator button and waited, shifting her weight restlessly.

The key in her hand, key in the lock, turning, no resistance…

Reliving the event was a symptom of posttraumatic stress. Her therapist had explained it to her. A traumatic event triggered stress hormones; the more hormones were pumped out, the more intensely the memory would be burned into the amygdala, a bundle of neurons in the brain. Whenever the experience was relived, new stress hormones were produced, further reinforcing the memory.

To break the cycle, it was necessary to brush aside the memories. Think about something else.

Something else. But there was nothing else. There was only the key in the lock, forever turning….

Turning, and the door opening as she stepped into the house…

The elevator arrived, chiming faintly. The sound startled her into the present.

When the doors slid apart, she saw two men in suits.

Cops, not feds. She knew instantly. They had to be cops